COVID-19 is fueling hunger in an already hungry world

For while COVID has upended the entire food system, it has hit smallholders and their families hardest. They number some 2 billion people worldwide and are responsible for about 80% of the food consumed in Africa and Asia.

By Patrick Verkooijen & Ban Ki-moon

COVID-19 is fueling hunger in an already hungry world. Oxfam has warned that COVID-related hunger could kill more people this year than the disease itself.

This is not because of a global lack of food. It’s because the way we produce and consume food is unequal, unsustainable and extremely vulnerable to disruption.

It has been shocking to see so much food going to waste during the pandemic, even as hundreds of millions of people are going hungry. Food rotting in the fields because farmers have been unable to get it to market; millions of animals being culled because slaughterhouses have been shut by coronavirus outbreaks.

It has been shocking to see the queues at food banks stretch for miles in the United States and realize, with a jolt, that food insecurity is no longer just a problem of the Global South. In June, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said food insecurity had risen substantially in the US.

And then there is what we do not see – the silent pandemic of hunger gnawing at the world’s poorest. For while COVID has upended the entire food system, it has hit smallholders and their families hardest. They number some 2 billion people worldwide and are responsible for about 80% of the food consumed in Africa and Asia.

The majority of smallholders, whose plots are as meagre as their savings, live on less than $2 a day and buy more food than they produce. So when local food markets shut down, and transport bans prevented day laborers from reaching farms, family incomes plunged. Now even basic staples have become unaffordable.

Even before COVID, 821 million people – more than 10% of the world’s population – did not get enough to eat. Because of COVID, those at risk of starvation could reach 265 million, the World Food Programme has warned.

Our global food system was deeply flawed even before the pandemic. COVID has amplified its inequalities: waste in rich countries, scarcity and insecurity in the rest of the world. With climate change, this will only get worse.

PLANETARY HEALTH

The immediate priority must be to feed the millions of people who are at a greater risk of starvation because of the pandemic. But the bigger, long-term problem is our broken food system.

COVID made it devastatingly clear that our planet’s health and our own are no longer separate; that unless we halt the destruction of natural habitats, more diseases will jump species from animal to human. And because food is as vital to human health as the absence of disease, it follows that we also need a strategy for building resilience and managing risks in how we grow and distribute our food. 

Everyone is connected to food. But policies that govern food production, the environment, trade, nutrition and public health are disjointed. To fix this, we must connect policies, co-ordinate investment and be very clear about the overriding goal: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger everywhere by 2030 – in accordance with the U.N.’s first two Sustainable Development Goals – without inflicting further harm on our planet.

Agricultural research and Big Data can help farming adapt to climate change faster and more effectively. R&D has already delivered drought-resistant and saline-resistant crop varieties to combat two of the worst effects of global warming – the desertification of vast tracts of arable land, and rising sea levels.

In Zimbabwe, farmers using drought-tolerant corn have been able to harvest up to 600kg more per hectare than farmers using conventional seeds. And in Bangladesh, farmers in the delta region are planting salt-resistant varieties of rice to adapt to the growing salinity of the soil as a result of rising sea levels.

Timely climate data can help farmers make better decisions, such as when to sow crops. Data is also the bedrock of financial services such as crop insurance. Price data gives farmers more control over when and where to sell their crops. It is time we valued data in agriculture as a key resource, like seeds, water or money.

Food sustains us. It should also unite us. We have the knowledge and skills to avert the next hunger catastrophe. We should use them wisely to rebuild our broken food systems and eradicate hunger and poverty within the next decade.

Ban Ki-moon is the 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the Global Center on Adaptation. Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation

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